Higgins: Dream-walking in China's capital

BY CHRIS HIGGINS | JUNE 15, 2015 5:00 AM

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BEIJING — It’s easy being a foreigner in Beijing, if you want to be.

It’s easy to grab a taxi, armed with a crisp 100-yuan bill (about $16.11, at Google’s last count), and shuttle off to glitzy Sanlitun — where Versace and Alexander McQueen are within steps of each other. Pronunciation is flexible.

The bouncers at the rooftop club won’t check your ID, but they will use English to help you sort out the bills you use for your cover payment for easier change. 

Then, for under 10 American bucks, you’ll receive permission to mingle with the well-off and well-dressed or groove to a renowned DJ’s beats inside this, like, egg-bed thing. 

You might even glow in the dark, still possible on a student journalist’s budget, during some kind of CW teen-drama-about-rich-kids-esque experience. 

Of course, if you’re less about cocktails and more into lagers, there’s always one of several foreign-owned breweries, including one down the street from a Mexican restaurant and a punk-rock bar.

Or, you could always grab an 83-cent subway ride to the nearest 11-story mall. It’ll be some kind of hyper-consumerist, super-capitalist dream: a sea of brands and ads with people of all colors and bright lights and shiny objects, available for purchase. 

I believe that I was standing in front of the Gap when I said to a fellow intern that I never felt more at home. The statement was tongue-in-cheek and, in hindsight, a bit empty.

After all, even the comfortable times are not quite the same as a trip down Clinton Street. Sanlitun is not the Iowa River Landing. The club here is not the club there. 


Only in Beijing could I rub shoulders with Chinese hipsters under balloons and Christmas lights or eavesdrop on a British expat convincing an American expat to drop the idea that he was just a “white face” for a Chinese beer company.

The latter expat knew my hometown. Oh, and this club in question had a gigantic outdoor bed available for reservation. 

But any good fantasy is more than just glitter. My particular variation includes using my Chinese in the language’s home — finally, after two years — to order shockingly delicious food, deal with burst pipes, and move myself from place to place. 

I’ve passed midnight sidewalk neighborhood gatherings of dumplings and beer as well as passed on a man trying to thrust a clown mask into my possession for a single yuan. He was wearing a mask of his own.

I also got locked inside the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium. Oops.

It still hasn’t quite “hit me” that I’m here and I don’t think it ever will. The reality is a fantasy because, to put it simply, I am in China. Not Iowa. The true punch to the chest will come when the second plane lands.

The expat bubble is simple to blend into and also easy to exit — without bursting entirely. You don’t want to miss out on the bar with a snow machine, but you also don’t want it to define your Beijing fantasy. Difficulty is a must, for your own sake. Your own growth.

Luckily, I have seven weeks before waking up.

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